Thursday January 10 2013

'Official' CPGB History: Scotching the myths

The history of the ‘official’ CPGB was much more complex than ‘tankies versus Euros’. This is the book-launch speech given by Lawrence Parker in December

The kick inside

I would first like to thank the CPGB for producing the second edition of The kick inside. The CPGB set no boundaries on the content, although obviously the comrades had read the first edition, so they had an inkling of what they might be getting. Given the general culture of the left, this is something to be applauded, in that the book offers a number of criticisms of The Leninist (the forerunner of today’s CPGB) and its trajectory.

As to the book itself, this is a second, expanded edition that covers two important rebellions in the ‘official’ Communist Party: the opposition to the party’s lurch to the right during World War II that manifested itself at its November 1945 congress; and the 1977 movement against the ‘new’ 1978 edition of the British road to socialism (BRS). There is also a section that discusses the adoption of the original BRS in 1951 and the rather depressing circumstances in which it was launched.

In introducing the book I do not have time to run through all its contents. Rather, I want to address a couple of the salient myths that surround the CPGB and its revolutionary oppositions in the post-war period. However, these myths are surrounded by a larger misunderstanding of the CPGB and why its history matters. Despite its geographical and sectional limitations in British society, and the fact that by the standards of some of the mass parties of the world ‘official’ communist movement the CPGB was pretty modest, the party formed an important section of the advanced part of the working class in Britain. And, despite its often rancid politics, it effectively blocked any aspirations on the part of the Trotskyite organisations to its left. For example, the BRS has informed the modus operandi of the Labour left across a few generations, while the manner in which the party approached trade union tasks was essentially an activist distillation of the economist proclivities of a largely vanished industrial shop-floor culture.

It is also worthwhile stating that I have a pretty ‘orthodox’, in Trotskyist terms, understanding of the major flaw in the CPGB’s politics - namely that in the mid-1920s the vast majority of the organisation did not see a problem with the Soviet Union’s toxic perspective of ‘socialism in one country’. So my intention is not to prettify the CPGB and its various factions, but rather to draw out the salient contradictions of its existence.

War ‘communism’

The first myth that I want to tackle is the idea that World War II was somehow the CPGB’s ‘finest hour’. It is not difficult to see how such a myth feeds upon broader patriotic readings of the war, where apparently we were ‘all in it together’ defeating Nazism (these ideas are particularly seductive for nationalist organisations such as the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain).

The CPGB certainly grew during the war. In September 1939 it had 20,000 members; by March 1945 this had risen to 45,435, although in 1942 the figure had reached 56,000. The party undoubtedly fed on the fact that the Soviet Union (and Stalin), as our much-feted allies, were popular among the working class and in British society in general.

Despite these apparent successes, there is evidence to suggest that World War II was an utterly traumatic period for a least a significant section of the CPGB’s membership. First of all, there had been a set of major policy reversals. Briefly, the party had originally supported the war in September 1939; the Comintern then intervened to declare it ‘imperialist’ and thus unsupportable. With the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the CPGB shifted again to support the war, moving to a line of extreme class-collaboration, which included scabbing on strikes, supporting moves towards increased levels of production and calling for the continuation of the ‘national’ government in March 1945 (only belatedly shifting to a position of support for Labour).

The experience of the leadership’s politics during the war left it facing a rank-and-file rebellion of national proportions at the party’s November 1945 congress, as can be seen in the various congress resolutions (which can be found in the party archive) and contributions to the CPGB weekly journal, World News and Views, in the run-up to congress. As general secretary Harry Pollitt put it at the time, “We deliberately kept out of World News and Views for six weeks any contributions from executive committee members, because we did not want to give any appearance of attempting to damp down the discussion, or, to use that much abused word in our party circles, ‘give comrades a bashing’.”1 So the leadership was under pressure, although the practice of convening a controlled, open debate (ie, open to those outside the organisation) in the party press was a standard one in the post-war period (which should provoke a sense of shame on the part of a large number of Trotskyist organisations who shout long and hard about their ‘anti-Stalinist’ credentials).

What did the opposition argue at the November 1945 congress?

● There were complaints about the stifling of inner-party democracy during the war.

● It seems that, although some members had grudgingly accepted the ‘no strikes’ line during the war, there were now calls for this policy to be reviewed and there was controversy around the party’s inability to support or give a lead to the 1945 dock workers’ strike.

● The decision to dissolve the CPGB’s factory branches and distribute the members across residential branches had been controversial and one that the leadership came to regret.

● The opposition voiced disagreement with the party’s passive, tailist attitude towards the newly elected Labour government, particularly in regard to its imperialist and anti-Soviet foreign policy.

● In arguing, in March 1945, for a continuation of the national government, the EC was seen as being completely out of touch with working class sentiment and then looked as if it had been dragged to the left by His Majesty’s Labour Party (Pollitt largely ceded this point in debate at the congress).

● A major controversy at the congress was that of ‘Browderism’, which related to Earl Browder’s liquidation of the Communist Party of the USA in favour of the looser Communist Political Association in 1944. Following the collaboration of the Soviet Union with capitalist allies during the war, Browder projected an extended period of social peace and a coalition of working class forces with ‘progressive’ capitalists. The CPGB’s call for the continuation of a national government in March 1945 was cut from the same political cloth and was, if you like, ‘British Browderism’. Jacques Duclos of the French Communist Party had jumped upon Browder’s ‘revisionism’ in April 1945 and this had clearly emboldened critics inside the CPGB, who criticised the British leadership’s tardiness in attacking Browder’s stance.

None of the various oppositional motions were successful at the November 1945 congress; indeed, while we are talking about a national opposition, it was not a nationally organised opposition, given that any horizontal factional organisation was banned by the CPGB’s rules. Also, even though all of the consequences of the existence of ‘socialism in one country’ (which is the root of the CPGB’s rightward political shift during World War II) were critiqued by the opposition, there was a naive tendency to posit a rigid line of division between the supposed ‘national’ revisionism of the British party, on the one hand, and the Soviet Union and the CPSU, on the other.

In considering his own, slightly later, challenge to the CPGB’s reformism, Eric Heffer, Labour MP from 1964-91, put it like this: “Looking back on our challenge to the CP, we were completely blind to the realities of Stalin and the Soviet Union. We thought that if only Stalin knew what was going on in the British CP he would be on our side. It was seriously suggested at one point that we should send someone over to tell him about our situation.”2 This standpoint effectively hobbled a number of inner-party pro-Soviet oppositions through the following decades, even after 1964, when John Gollan (Pollitt’s successor as general secretary) had unveiled Stalin’s role in the shaping of the reformist BRS in the early 1950s.


The other major myth I want to deal with concerns the inner-party struggle from the mid-1960s onwards and the fallacious notion that this can somehow be boiled down to a battle of ‘tankies versus Euros’ (‘tankies’ being the supporters of, among other things, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968; the ‘Euros’ being the group that liquidated the ‘official’ CPGB in 1991). To take one particularly laughable example of how this can play out, let us consider our old friend, Sean Matgamna of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. Talking of the formation of The Leninist group, he writes: “It originated as a small, still ultra-Stalinist, offshoot from the New Communist Party, which was a stone-age Stalinist breakaway from the real CPGB in 1977. They were called ‘tankies’, because, as their critics justly said of them, they believed in a ‘Russian tanks road to socialism’. The tankies first emerged as a distinct segment of the Communist Party in August 1968, when they loudly supported the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia to put down Alexander Dubček’s attempt to create ‘socialism with a human face’. The CP, opposing the Russians for the first time in its 48-year history, had condemned the invasion.”3

Now, one can make a sport of taking apart statements such as this, but, whacky as it seems, this is not an uncommon analysis from comrades from a Trotskyist background. In reality, ‘tankies versus Euros’ has very little purchase in describing the reality of the CPGB. To illustrate this, let us quickly look at some of the inner-party groupings that existed by the 1980s.

Eurocommunists: This trend (which included the likes of Martin Jacques, Nina Temple and Beatrix Campbell) looked for a ‘renewal’ of the CPGB by tailing/liquidating into feminist and peace movements (ie, essentially an updated version of popular frontism), accompanied by the use of bureaucratic measures against opposition forces. It wanted to distance the party from the Soviet Union and the trade unions, even though this trend’s politics had an impeccable ‘official’ communist heritage. Under the editorship of Jacques, Marxism Today had the ‘innovative’ idea of interviewing various reactionary figureheads of bourgeois society; it was just a shame that The Daily Telegraph had already thought this up more than 100 years before.

● ‘Leadership’ faction: This was the CPGB’s traditional right-centrist leadership around figures such as Gordon McLennan, Reuben Falber and George Matthews. Politically adrift by the 1980s, it maintained its power in alliance with the Eurocommunist trend, being sympathetic to the ‘renewal’ idea and seeing this as an opportunity to reinvigorate its own existence.

Morning Star trend: Grouped around the CPGB’s dull daily paper (and the subsequent fiction of its ‘independence’ from the party), this faction united refugees from the right-centrist bureaucracy (Tony Chater, Mick Costello) with a group of the party’s trade union activists. It certainly could not be called ultra-Stalinist, although it tended to be broadly pro-Soviet (the Soviet Union was still buying bulk copies). Its main ‘distinction’, however, was its commitment to a rather moderate form of trade unionism.

Straight Left: Formed around the boring paper of the same name and led by Fergus Nicholson, it was essentially the rump of the CPGB’s left-centrist opposition of the 1960s-70s after Surrey district and others had decamped to form the NCP in 1977. It was founded on a ‘holy trinity’ of ‘Brezhnevite’ international politics, support for the pre-1977 versions of the BRS and liquidationism in favour of the Labour Party in practice. It lost considerable ground and key members (such as John Foster) to the Morning Star trend, as the decade wore on, although it was strong in the London area.

The Leninist: Composed of a group that had left the CPGB to join the NCP and come under the influence of a group of Turkish communists around Riza Yürükoğlu, it re-entered the CPGB in 1981. It took a critical approach to Trotsky’s legacy, but used some of Trotsky’s insights to inform its battle against the liquidationism of the party’s main trends. It inherited a rejection of the BRS in all its forms (which had been a common currency among older oppositionists). It described the Soviet Union as the ‘world’s revolutionary centre’ (ie, as the place where the class struggle had reached its highest pitch historically), but did not tail the CPSU and other ruling parties, and was highly critical of their bureaucratisation and actions in the international arena.

On top of the party’s main factions there were a number of other smaller national groupings and a host of other localised groups (the South Wales opposition around Robert Griffiths would be an example).

Now, if you want to reduce all of that (and I have massively simplified the picture) to ‘tankies versus Euros’, all I can say is bloody good luck to you! But then, Trotskyists may have another objection and that is: aren’t all of these CPGB oppositionists (post-war, Maoist, pro-Soviet and so on) fundamentally Stalinist?

James Eaden and David Renton’s book, The Communist Party of Great Britain since 1920, is probably the best general introduction to the subject around. But, being a work by SWP members, it is problematical (that is, problematical in the sense of being wrong) when it considers the CPGB’s revolutionary oppositionists. For example, this is what they write about the formation of the party’s Maoist trend in the early 1960s: “How closely rank-and-file communists followed the argument is debatable. However, the doctrinaire and orthodox defence of essentially Stalinist positions being put forward in statements from Peking did attract a small following in the party.”4 It is perfectly true that these oppositionists had positions that could be classed as ‘Stalinist’ (or ‘official’ communist, given that this brand of politics outlived Stalin and his odious reputation); but it is also perfectly true that such oppositions had a strong ‘anti-Stalinist’ bent in their critique of the Labour-loyal parliamentary reformism of the BRS.

Why cannot these contradictions be accurately assessed? This is partly because Eaden and Renton have their own schema for divisions in the CPGB (which turns out to be yet another version of ‘tankies versus Euros’5); but also as a result of a factional sleight of hand. The ‘revolutionary party’ is, of course, the Socialist Workers Party and its International Socialist forerunners in the post-war period. To have to start identifying other factions and trends that might just have had some healthy ideas would strike a blow against this exclusive and sectarian world view.


The kick inside can be ordered at Lulu here.


1.‘Reply to discussion by Harry Pollitt’, Communist Party Archive, CP/CENT/CONG/05/02.

2.E Heffer Never a yes man: the life and politics of an adopted Liverpudlian London 1991, p38.


4. J Eaden and D Renton The Communist Party of Great Britain since 1920 Basingstoke 2002, pp109-110.

5. Ibid p100.

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